Iowa, Iowa State sports gambling investigation: How serious is the situation?

Chad Leistikow Randy Peterson
Des Moines Register
A view of the FanDuel Sportsbook betting area at Belterra Park Cincinnati.

The story of former Virginia Tech football player Alan Tisdale could be a telling tale for those curious about how significant the impact will be surrounding the sports gambling investigation involving 40-plus student-athletes and the University of Iowa and Iowa State University.

Tisdale was entering his fifth-year senior season last fall when his school’s compliance department showed a PowerPoint presentation to the football team about the growing pervasiveness of legalized sports gambling. He admitted to his head coach the next day that he wagered about $400 on that summer’s NBA Finals with a FanDuel account and won $41 in profits. Betting on any NCAA-sanctioned sport at any level – college or pro – is a violation of NCAA rules. So, the school self-reported Tisdale’s violation, and he donated that $41 to charity.

The NCAA responded to Tisdale's honesty by slapping him with a nine-game suspension for the 2022 season. It was reduced to six games on appeal. But betting on pro basketball games between the Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics – something seemingly unrelated to the Virginia Tech football team – was a significant enough no-no that it cost him half of his final college season.

It's not yet known what penalties might lie ahead for the 26 student-athletes at Iowa and “approximately 15” at Iowa State. But given the Tisdale case, a significant impact on the eligibility and availability of the involved Iowa and Iowa State athletes could be expected.

Related:FAQs on the NCAA's sports betting stance

There is limited flexibility built into the NCAA bylaws: “Student-athletes found in violation of NCAA sports wagering rules will be ineligible for competition, subject to appeal to the Committee on Student-Athlete Reinstatement. The appropriate penalties will be considered on a case-by-case basis.” The NCAA issued the guidance in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 decision that ended the federal ban on sports gambling. Iowa became the first Midwest state to legalize sports gambling, in August 2019.

However, considering that the Tisdale situation was met with some public backlash – the NCAA’s stance was seen as antiquated given the prevalence of legalized sports gambling, which has spread to 33 states – Iowa and Iowa State harbor hope that perhaps there will be more leniency in the individual cases of these student-athletes.

No criminal charges (yet) at University of Iowa or Iowa State

An important distinction was made by Brian Ohorilko, the administrator of the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission, in an interview with the Des Moines Register on Tuesday morning. Unlike the recent case involving an Alabama-LSU baseball matchup, which resulted in the firing of Alabama coach Brad Bohannon after he informed a bettor in Ohio that his star pitcher wasn’t going to play, there was no suspicious activity detected among any of the Iowa or Iowa State student-athletes that would have impacted betting lines.

“I can tell you through the tools we use with regard to reviewing the markets, that we currently do not have any indication that there are any issues that would raise doubt on the integrity of the markets that have been offered from those two universities,” Ohorilko said. “… That’s different than the LSU-Alabama situation, where we did receive integrity reports and looked at that market closely because of the reports we received.”

Monday's news:Athletes at Iowa, Iowa State under investigation

That doesn’t mean 100% of the athletes are in the same camp. Maybe one bet $5 on one NHL game. Maybe someone else bet on his own school or team; or, worse, against his own team. The facts of all 41 cases can be completely different and result in different penalties.

At Iowa, even head coaches were mostly left to wonder what the status would be of their athletes in the coming days, weeks and months. The Monday UI response to the investigation, which the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation is conducting, referenced being “notified of potential criminal conduct related to sports wagering that also suggested possible NCAA violations” on May 2.

The feeling from both schools Tuesday was that the investigation stemmed from a DCI crackdown on underage gambling and eventually uncovered involvement by student-athletes. In Iowa, a person must be 21 years old to legally place a wager. The DCI said in a statement Tuesday that “no criminal charges have been filed, and no further information will be released."

Sports law experts, though, say it's not clear that an underage gambling investigation would result in criminal investigations as opposed to regulatory action against the sportsbooks.

"If ... there's a criminal investigation going on, then that means that there is something more than just, 'Oh, God, we shouldn't have taken bets from those guys,'" said Keith Miller, a Drake University law professor and co-author of a textbook on gambling law.

In other words, there could be more coming to light in the days and weeks to come. But we may never know specifics about how much was wagered and how frequently those bets were placed.

Iowa baseball players hopeful to return

Although the UI said 111 individuals are alleged to have participated in sports gambling, 85 of them were identified as “student-staff, former student-athletes or those with no connection to UI athletics.” The 26 student-athletes were from the sports of baseball, football, men’s basketball, men’s track and field, and wrestling.

At Iowa State, the roughly 15 athletes are from the football, wrestling and men’s track and field teams.

Freedom of information requests sent by the Register were either unreturned as of Tuesday afternoon or responded to by citing the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), leaving the names of 40-plus student-athletes from the public eye. But certainly there are a lot of intrigued eyes watching this situation.

Most immediately, the four players who were missing from the Iowa baseball dugout last weekend are wondering if they’ll be able to return this season. The Hawkeyes have seven regular-season games left before the Big Ten Tournament May 23-28 in Omaha. Time is running out for them.

Lyla Clerry, Iowa’s associate athletics director for compliance, declined to offer specifics about where the process was, but did provide a link to the NCAA’s procedure for sorting out violations. Iowa and Iowa State have said they’ve self-reported the violations, and that the schools are cooperating with the investigation.

After the review and investigation, the review process ends if no Level I (most serious) or Level II violations are found. If at least a Level II violation (which includes “conduct that may compromise the integrity of the NCAA collegiate model”) is found, the possible resolutions for each athlete include:

  • A negotiated resolution (where all parties agree on the facts, level of violations and penalties);
  • A summary disposition (where all parties agree on the facts but not the level of violations or penalties);
  • A written record hearing (where there are slight disagreements on facts and written submissions are reviewed by a panel);
  • Or a full hearing (rarely done, with in-person arguments and a panel ruling).

Any of the latter three resolutions can be followed by an appeal, just as the Tisdale case resulted in an appeal. And with the NCAA, things rarely move quickly.

Cy-Hawk football implications likely

If there’s any good news here, it’s that there are still almost four months until the respective football openers for Iowa State (Sept. 2 vs. Northern Iowa) and Iowa (Sept. 2 vs. Utah State). Resolutions on penalties should be settled by then, giving coaches Matt Campbell and Kirk Ferentz clarity for the 2023 season ahead. And unless a major development on point-shaving or game-fixing is revealed − again, there is no evidence yet of that − then player eligibility will likely be the most visible impact of the investigation.

Both universities were mum on how many football players are being investigated.

Iowa State president Wendy Wintersteen let Monday’s announcement (that the school “has notified the NCAA and will take the appropriate actions to resolve these issues”) stand on Tuesday.

“The university does not have any additional comment beyond the statement that was provided on Monday,” Wintersteen said through spokesperson Angie Hunt.

The annual Cyclones-Hawkeyes football showdown is scheduled for Week 2 in Ames on Sept. 9. But considering the precedent set by the Tisdale case, a Cy-Hawk football game shaken up by player betting has now become a real possibility, just four years after sports gambling was legalized in the state of Iowa.

The Register's William Morris contributed to this report.